Doan Thi Hoa has spent more than a decade uplifting the disabled community through a center she has built in suburban Hanoi, teaching different trades and bringing smiles to children with special needs.
For the past 14 years, Hoa, in her late 50s, has strived hard to improve conditions of children with disabilities and give them a place where they can fit in.
People who come to Quynh Hoa Rolled Paper Cooperative, based in Huu Hoa Commune, Thanh Tri District in suburban Hanoi, can easily recognize her by the bright smile she always wears as she moves from one corner of the class to the other in order to attend to each of the students.
Hoa and her husband, Nguyen Huu Tan, have provided parental care and vocational training to some 500 physically challenged children, including those with severe impairments and others coming all the way from southern localities.
Just keep smiling
Hoa often goes by the adorable nickname U Hoa, with ‘U’ meaning ‘mother’ in northern dialects.
The middle-aged woman shared it is her smiles and carefree outlook that help her shut out daunting setbacks and keep her moving forward.
At the cooperative, which doubles as a free-admission vocational training center, Hoa is not only the teacher of a class with some of the most serious disabilities, but also a mother with boundless love and dedication.
From the center, many of her 500-plus students have matured and shined a light in their corner of the world. Many have also been able to have their own family, jobs, and been integrated into society.
Hoa herself has ‘matchmade’ 23 couples among the students.
The woman, who has just had an operation on one leg, shared her calling to teach vocational skills to children with special needs during a charity trip with the Hanoi Red Cross Society almost 15 years ago.
When the volunteers were handing out gifts to disadvantaged children at a nursing home, Hoa spotted one child who was not too excited about the presents.
What the child later told her sank into her heart.
“We’re really thankful for the gifts, but what disabled children like me really need is learning a trade to provide for ourselves later,” the child said.
Realizing what the underprivileged youngsters wished for, back from the trip, the woman was set on developing her calling into a disabled-forward initiative.
With her husband’s support, Hoa set up a workshop to provide free vocational training for the local disabled community right in her backyard.
Concerned about the amount of care they would have to put in to teach disabled children, Tan, her husband, initially objected to it.
Seeing how determined his wife was, he soon gave in and the construction of four rooms marked her wish fulfilled.
The couple soon found themselves busy taking care of 15 minors with special needs upon the opening of the center.
Their first batch of students consisted of several in the most severe conditions of intellectual and physical disabilities, including immobility, hearing impairments, and mental retardation.
At first many could not even perform their daily hygiene routines while some were confined to wheelchairs.
With time and Hoa’s patience and loving care, that has hugely improved.
Most of her students have greatly improved their condition, being able to care for themselves, do simple household chores, and exchange greetings with visitors despite their speech and intellectual impairments.
“It’s my calling. I’m willing to give without asking for anything in return,” Hoa shared.
“It’s really hard work, but I have to shrug off my exhaustion to be someone the children can rely on."
A cause to pursue
Hoa started out with 10 sewing machines and successfully passed on sewing skills to students with minor disabilities.
But the task proved overwhelming to those with severe impairments, who could not operate the devices.
Instead, Hoa taught them the craft of making votive banknotes and items, which was then practiced in the neighborhood.
Several local teachers, in tune with Hoa’s benevolence, offered her a hand.
However, Hoa’s initiative was not without challenges.
As many of the students at the center forget what they learn almost immediately, it took Hoa a great deal of time to teach them things that seem simple to able-bodied people, let alone trades.
Starting 2009, Hoa let her students give it a try with paper rolling, the craft which turned out a perfect fit for students with different defects.
“They put their innocent thoughts into the paintings, postcards, and other handicraft items which they make with their own hands,” Hoa shared excitedly.
The children’s works delight visitors to the center who buy them as souvenirs and even make it to tourist complexes and the Old Quarter in downtown Hanoi.
Behind each handicraft item is a different life story.
Hai, 24, who has mental disability and speech impairment, says that art and life go together when he is working on the items, especially those that take more care and dexterity.
“Mother [Hoa] teaches us how to roll paper and other stuff,” Hai said.
“She is so kind-hearted. She really cares for me,” he added with a clear effort to articulate his words.
For Nguyen Lan Phuong, a 31-year-old woman with a mobility disability which can cause her to fall, it has been a long, difficult road to be where she is now.
Paper rolling is not the only craft taught at Hoa’s center.
Hoa added her students also know how to craft rattan items, with some learning office computer skills to get themselves ready for work at local businesses.
The ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus has added to Hoa’s concerns, as she temporarily cannot sell the students’ works to tourist complexes or the Old Quarter.
The woman, however, is positive the things that weigh on her mind will soon pass, as she always receives offers of aid from donors.
“It’s her lifelong calling, so I must be her companion," Tan said, adding they really miss their students whenever they return home for public holidays.
“It’s my greatest blessing to educate the kids and see how far they have gone,” Hoa said with her signature smile.